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Shifting from Gamification to Playful Design

This is a light­ly edit­ed tran­script of a short lec­ture I deliv­ered some time ago at an off-site gath­er­ing orga­nized by one of NL’s largest con­struc­tion-ser­vices busi­ness­es. The event explored the poten­tial of games, game design and gam­i­fi­ca­tion for prop­er­ty devel­op­ment and con­struc­tion. This talk cre­ates a com­mon frame of under­stand­ing about gam­i­fi­ca­tion and why ‘play­ful design’ is a more pro­duc­tive approach.

Feedback Systems

Let’s start with a def­i­n­i­tion of gam­i­fi­ca­tion. The Gam­i­fi­ca­tion Research Net­work offers the fol­low­ing: “using game design ele­ments in non-game contexts.”

Foursquare remains the blue­print for most ‘naive’ imple­men­ta­tions of this idea. Take a prod­uct or ser­vice and add fea­tures such as points, badges, leader­boards, etc.

How­ev­er, such fea­tures are feed­back sys­tems and these are not unique to games.

Now, the assump­tion is that adding such feed­back sys­tems leads to high­er engage­ment and moti­va­tion from users.

But from a prac­ti­cal stand­point we quick­ly run into a prob­lem. In which case should we use which par­tic­u­lar sys­tem? This grab bag of feed­back sys­tems lacks an instruc­tion manual.

If we want to be able to answer this ques­tion we need to stop focus­ing on feed­back sys­tems, and instead look at the peo­ple we are design­ing for and the con­text in which they use our prod­uct or service.


Like I said, feed­back sys­tems are not unique to games. A bet­ter start­ing point is the actu­al source of what makes them fun: learn­able challenges.

Put dif­fer­ent­ly, what we should do is shift from game ele­ments, to a gam­ing state of mind. This gam­ing state of mind is also known as gamefulness.

So let’s unpack this gam­ing state of mind. Learn­ing is a huge source of plea­sure in games. We enjoy the expe­ri­ence of competence.

But next to this mas­tery of sys­tems, explor­ing game sys­tems and express­ing our­selves through them is anoth­er huge source of plea­sure. We enjoy this expe­ri­ence of free­dom. If game­ful­ness is char­ac­terised by the need for com­pe­tence. Play­ful­ness is char­ac­terised by a need for autonomy.

And in both the case of com­pe­tence and auton­o­my, we derive plea­sure from play­ing along­side oth­ers. We enjoy relatedness.

So these are three sources of plea­sure in games and play. In fact, they are innate psy­cho­log­i­cal needs.

Engagement Loops

These con­cepts give us a start­ing point for apply­ing game design to prod­ucts and ser­vices. They can be the start of our instruc­tion manual.

The first step is to under­stand what moti­vates our par­tic­u­lar audi­ence. From these moti­va­tions, we can rea­son back to what feed­back sys­tems will pro­vide peo­ple with the desired need fulfilment.

The next step is to return to the con­cept of a learn­able chal­lenge. For there to be a chal­lenge there must be goals. These goals are informed by what we want peo­ple to do, and what peo­ple them­selves want to achieve.

If we know what goals users will be pur­su­ing, we can start think­ing about what tools and resources we need to give them in order for them to be able to do so.

These tools con­nect with the afore­men­tioned feed­back sys­tems. The feed­back sys­tems have already been con­nect­ed to user moti­va­tions and from these moti­va­tions we can loop back to the goals we have identified.

The mod­el I have just out­lined is what we call the engage­ment loop, and it is at the heart of how we think about and design for moti­va­tion and engage­ment. It is a much more sophis­ti­cat­ed approach than gamification.

Playful Design

So we shift from gam­i­fi­ca­tion to play­ful design. The key idea is that we can make things that are use­ful, that peo­ple use to achieve cer­tain things, but that at the same time allow for a play­ful atti­tude.

By focus­ing on play­ful­ness we remind our­selves that moti­va­tion is as much about mas­tery or com­pe­tence as it is about cre­ativ­i­ty. We can design things to allow for both a sense of achieve­ment and a sense of free­dom. We can make our designs adapt­able to a range of social sit­u­a­tions. And so ulti­mate­ly we can make them more humane.

I can’t empha­sise enough how our intent is to add degrees of free­dom, not to be more con­trol­ling. More con­trol lim­its play­ful­ness, instead of enabling it.

So in sum­ma­ry (1) instead of feed­back sys­tems think learn­able chal­lenges, (2) under­stand that moti­va­tion comes from the sat­is­fac­tion of the needs to feel com­pe­tent, autonomous and relat­ed and (3) use this under­stand­ing of moti­va­tion to con­nect goals with tools and tools feed­back and (4) play­ful sys­tems are humane sys­tems. If you care about peo­ple-friend­ly tech­nol­o­gy, you should care about play.

Further Reading

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